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'Technology revolutionising society'

19 November 2009

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Communities are benefiting from several e-learning packages, resource centres and mobile and internet access facilities, writes John Liebhardt. A series of programmes and doorstep services are contributing towards education and overall rural development.

Our previous posts concentrated on what the future of ICTs for development could look like. This post will provide a taste of what it does look like. We’ll tackle a few lingering issues facing information and communication technology before investigating a few ICT projects.

Image credits: Global voices online/ ICTs aiding farmers

These ventures weren’t picked by any scientific method; nor do they constitute any consensus of how ICTs will look in the next few years.

These are just projects that caught my eye. Because these projects leverage technology in rural areas, let’s start with a discussion on how public internet kiosks could develop in the next few years.

In his blog ICTlogy, Ismael Peña-López wonders whether public internet kiosks like telecentres and cybercafés will evolve into enhanced e-centers, “where communities will gather and benefit from several community resources, computers and Internet access among others? Or will they just disappear?”

Shilpa Sayura

Shilpa Sayura, which means sea of knowledge, is an interactive digital self-learning system based in Sri Lanka.

Shilpa Sayura’s course of study began with eight subjects that parallels the national education curriculum so students in remote and rural areas can prepare for national school examinations in Sinhala, the country's predominant local language. The project has added another three courses, including lessons in Tamil and English.

Shilpa Sayura's open-source software was given away to non-profit educational providers and to rural Nansalas, a chain of government-developed telecentres. These telecentres in Sri Lanka fulfill many roles: Some provide connection to the web, but also offer fax, photocopying and printing services. They make money from phone calls, VOIP, and provide a bill-payment service. They are also places, the government hopes, where other ICT projects can bloom.

The blog Technology and Cultural Festival in Kandiyapitawew from Sri Lanka explains the educational benefits of the project.

“The ‘Shilpa Sayura’ e-learning package covers eight school subjects, in Sinhala from grade six to O level. Shilpa Sayura’s simple interactive means of self study caters to students in remote communities with no access to urban educational resources.

Still in its pilot stage Shilpa Sayura now operates in 20 ‘Nenasalas’ or tele-centers located in distant villages and promotes the concept of self learning among students in these secluded communities…The next phase would be the transformation of Shilpa Sayura into a National project to strengthen rural education and bridge the gap between rural and urban students.”


The next project takes place in Kenya, where the blog Global Warming contends the mobile phone is revolutionising society.

Image credits: Global voices online/ M-Pesa agent in Bunda

M-Pesa began in 2007 as a way to perform simple banking transactions through cell phones. The telecom firms behind the project didn’t charge registration fees or require customers to have a bank account, often a major hurdle in Kenya because few people deal with traditional banks.

Once signed-up, customers can use the M-Pesa application to pay bills, purchase more phone credits and transfer money within Kenya through data-enabled mobile phones. M-Pesa now allows customers to book airline tickets. Safaricom, the company responsible for M-Pesa, is beginning a pilot project to let customers pay for water usage.

In July 2009 M-Pesa totaled more than seven million subscribers, who collect or send money through a network of more than 1400 bank agents, making it the largest bank in the country. These customers transfer more than $2.5 million every month.

Just a few weeks ago, M-Pesa went international, moving into the United Kingdom by allowing people to send money back to phone numbers in Kenya through a web interface. The transaction costs as little as $8 US for sending 150 Pounds.

A 2005 study found traditional money transfer firms charged fees between 2.5 and 40 percent of the transfer for anything below 100 Pounds.


Indian Tobacco Company, one of India’s largest exporters, created eChoupal, a series of rural information centres where farmers can communicate directly to other farmers, different markets and experts through the internet. These village internet kiosks were first installed for farmers to learn in local languages the latest information regarding national and international prices in soy, wheat, tobacco and shrimp.

But the platform has morphed to providing other important information, such as weather conditions and the latest scientific practices. In 2006, eChoupal counted 3.5 million farmers who used 5,200 internet kiosks throughout more than 30,000 villages.

The farmers pay a local coordinator a small sum to use the kiosk, which can also be used to order seed, fertilisers and other goods.

The blog NeoProducts Kiosks, from the UK, makes the point that part of eChoupal’s success comes from leaving behind the traditional buyers.

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